Studio pottery by any other name

Mike Rivkin, Special to The Desert Sun
Published 12:06 a.m. PT May 29, 2021

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Bold paint and glazes like this emerged during the mid-century era. (Photo: Courtesy Antique Galleries of Palm Springs)

When most people hear the word “studio,” what comes to mind is a place where music is made. Or maybe where a painter dabs his canvasses. But studio pottery is a thing, too, and it’s increasingly popular here in the desert. We’ve sold a lot of it in the last few months, and demand is increasing. So, what is studio pottery anyway? Let’s take a look.

As commonly used, the term “studio pottery” defines small batch pottery made by artisans. No mass production is involved, and no piece is identical to any other. Insofar as clay vessels were crafted and used since the dawn of recorded history, it is one of the oldest forms of artisanship. Other than Native American pottery (which we’ll take up in a future column), most enthusiasts today look for 20th century pieces that reflect their own style and that of the era in which they’re interested.

While identifying the exact maker of a pot can be tricky, its shape will often give clues as to its age. Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau pottery tend to be more rounded and traditional while Art Deco pieces often have harder lines. More modern pieces frequently reflect post-war experimentation with glazes and finishes. Color, decoration, shape and even the type of clay used are telltale signs of patrimony, but those can be difficult for the amateur to read. Most often, marks on the bottom of each pot will tell a clearer tale.

And even these marks vary widely. They can include the vessel’s home studio, potter name or mark and perhaps even a second name if the pot was painted or glazed in a proprietary way. The year of manufacture may also be present along with a model or form number. Certain elite potters release all their pots unsigned, reflecting an arrogant confidence that their followers will be able to identify their work by sight alone. Still, you’ll have to look at a lot of pots to be able to do that.

As with almost all one-of-a-kind objects, pricing is arbitrary and subject to agreement between buyer and seller. The work of rock-star potters can bring big coin, but there are countless small-shop makers and skilled amateurs capable of producing elegant pieces. If you’re buying solely for decoration, the world is your oyster. But if you’re buying to collect or, harder yet, invest, then condition, rarity and provenance are key.

If all else fails, there is one place to go online that might just bail you out. The Marks Project (themarksproject.org) is a nonprofit searchable database of American pottery that serves as a repository for maker’s marks and other identifying features. Many auction houses and advanced collectors participate, making it a most useful resource. If you’re bound and determined to find out what hands fashioned your favorite vase, this is the best place to look. With practice, you too may gain the experience to toss off a potter’s name with just a glance. If nothing else, that will make you a welcome guest at many local gatherings.

Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years, he was an award-winning catalogue publisher and has authored seven books, along with countless articles. Now, he’s the owner of Antique Galleries of Palm Springs. His antiques column appears Saturdays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Drop him a line at [email protected]

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